Promotional swag is supposed to be an easy way for businesses to build recognition and goodwill among their customers. Companies sank more than $18.8 billion into branded freebies in 2006, according to the Promotional Products Association International, an industry trade group. But many businesses fail to bring creative thinking or design savvy to these most tangible of marketing efforts, with the result that most swag ends up in the garbage. Giving out a throwaway item won't necessarily harm your company's image, of course, but it does represent a waste of precious promotional dollars.

To devise a good freebie, you must "think like a poet," says Denis McFarlane, who runs Infinitive, a consulting firm in McLean, Virginia, and gives away $10,000 in swag annually. Look for items that are attractive and that convey a positive message about your product or services. You don't have to spend a fortune, but don't give away anything that cheapens your brand. "We don't want anything that's flimsy or would break easily because that's not the metaphor we want to show our clients," McFarlane says.

You'll want to put your logo on most items, but avoid the temptation of making it too big, especially on clothing. If you want to catch someone's eye, go for a smaller logo set against a brightly colored backdrop. Turn to museum stores or design shows on TV for cues on contemporary color palettes.

Look for items that are functional. Steer clear of cute but useless toys or gizmos that beg the question "What is that?"

Think small. Choose freebies that can be slipped easily into carryon luggage and that won't set off airport metal detectors. And consider your typical customer carefully. "Some people get caught in the 'I like this, let's buy it' trap without considering the end user," says Josh Frey, CEO of On Sale Promos, a Washington, D.C., company that distributes swag. A marketing manager who is female, for example, might choose a tote bag that she would personally use but that might not appeal to a primarily male customer base.

Be smart about packaging. If you use a velvet box or a snakeskin case to present a cheap-looking pen, expect eye-rolling. And with today's focus on sustainable business, look for items made from recycled materials. Environmentally friendly products ranging from fleece jackets to coffee mugs to notepads are available.

Here's a look at products ranging in price from $1 to $131. Call it swag with swagger, and trust that customers on the receiving end will be appreciative.

Fishing lure, $6
Rattlin' Rapala lures are a great giveaway, particularly if you're targeting affluent male customers. They can be used in fresh water and salt water and for fish like pike, salmon, and trout.

Stapler, $5
Sure, it's a run-of-the-mill office product, but this fire-engine-red stapler was a hit at a recent education conference, thanks to its usefulness and unusual design.

Gummi worms, $1 per package
Because swag can be delicious: The Promotional Products Association International promotes itself via this colorful candy--the group's logo appears on the bag--at trade shows.

Fleece blanket, $11--$21
Infinitive's Denis McFarlane passes out blankets at his consulting firm's year-end holiday party. "We get compliments from people who say they gave it to their daughter or that they always use it when they watch TV," he says. "And, of course, they see our logo every time they use it."

Back massager, $3
It's colorful and easy to slip into a carryon, and it could claim real estate on a client's desk forever. The only hitch: Will a back massager bring your company to mind only when the recipient has a knot in her shoulder?

Tape measure, $5
It's useful and easy to pack, and has a long shelf life. Plus, you can print a lot of information (phone number, URL, etc.) on the side.

Matches, $1
P.i.n.k. Vodka of New York City gives out tubes of matches as well as branded lip balm ($2) on the theory that it's good to have "a mix of products that's not just about one time of day," says CEO David Mandell.

Travel pack, $20
The Federal Aviation Authority's three-one-one rule for carrying liquids on airplanes presents an opportunity to create truly functional swag for trade shows. This branded packet contains business travel standbys like hand sanitizer, breath mints, and lip balm.

iPod docking station, $131
Andrew Grose, CEO of Nortec, an IT consultancy based in Falls Church, Virginia, saves his best swag for people with real purchasing power. "If it's a gift for someone in the IT department, I don't want to invest as much," he says, "but if it's the CIO of a company, I can justify spending a bit more to get their attention."

Notebook, $15
A notebook is always handy, but watch out for ones that are either overdesigned or cheaply made. Opt for these sturdy, colorful notebooks with your logo subtly embossed on the cover fabric.

Hydration backpack, $33
The logo on this hydration pack, used for biking, skiing, or hiking, can be large without embarrassing the user. This kind of swag is good if you want to create an association in your customer's mind between your brand and recreation.

USB drive, $10
Even if people don't need a drive, they'll often pass it along to a colleague or family member. Some companies load a marketing presentation onto their giveaway drives. If you go this route, we strongly advise that you keep it brief.

Wireless travel PC mouse, $15
Denis McFarlane says, "We actually get requests from employees and clients who ask for extras for their home computer or to give to a spouse."

Flashlight, $14
Because it's so useful, you can get away with a relatively large logo on this flashlight. If you're lucky, it will find a long-term home in a customer's toolbox or glove compartment.

Steak knives, $60
"Companies are increasingly choosing items that will win at-home real estate," says Lindsay Hoylman, a marketer at Leed's, a promotional products company. Knife sets like this Laguiole-style design (with the signature bumblebee handle) are nice gifts for the holiday season. Your company's logo can be printed on the lid of the wooden case, where it will be visible but not obtrusive.